Oh boy, here they come. The Memorial Celebration starts at 1:00 pm and it’s only 12:30. But there is a rule around this little town of retirees: come early when there’s free food involved. Oh, I know that’s a bit harsh of me and it won’t be that long before I’m walking in their shoes, but I’m a writer and it’s the quirky little things in life—in human behavior—that interest me. Take notice of something like that and there’s usually a good story in there and often a lesson to be learned as well. Take this group, coming up the walk:
“Hi. Thank you for coming. I’m Nick, Harriet’s nephew.”
These ladies are from the County Board; Harriet was past president. It’s not the frugality of their eating habits that has my curiosity piqued today. It’s the two white caps among them—two out of seven. Let me tell you, there must be hundreds of them, all about 115-120 lbs, five foot five to five foot seven, well tanned, capri pants or flowing skirt, pastel blouse, sandals and white bobbed hair. The “white caps,” I call them. Seen from the front, you can tell them apart but from the back they are built alike, dressed alike, and coiffed alike, an ocean of aging doppelgangers. They’re all over—the grocery store, the farmer’s market, strolling on the street. And when walking away? You’d swear it was the same woman … everywhere.
“Indeed, she was a wonderful person. Help yourself to some cold cuts and the salad.”
“Yes, we all are going to miss her.”
Oh there are others, for sure—big ones, tall ones, pale ones, dark ones, like the other five in this group. They are mostly “snowbirds,” down here from Eau Claire or Port Angeles or wherever. About ten thousand of them, dragging their husbands behind, fill up this little town every winter. But these white caps? These are local ladies. I am sure. Like my aunt, Harriet who is a retired schoolteacher, she has been here since ’93. She is seventy-eight years old and has white bobbed hair, white as ocean foam on a Caribbean beach.
Harriet’s only living sister is here, in from Ames, as are Harriet’s two daughters, Jean and Barbara (California cousins) and their husbands. They’re all about helping to greet the arriving guests.
“Hello ladies. Thank you for coming.”
“Well, yes. It is a terrible loss for all of us but we must go on.”
This crowd is from the Santa Rita Art League. Harriet was into a lot of things: painting, ceramics, even origami.
“A long life … and a creative one, for sure. Yes.”
“Well thank you. Be sure to see the display at the front of the room. A few of her paintings are on the wall and some of her pottery along with the pictures.”
“Of course—after the lunch—for sure.”
“Oh yes; wouldn’t be a Harriet display without Graceful Dragonfly or Magnificent Crane.”
Harriet was an army nurse and spent time in Osaka after the war. That’s where she expanded her artistic side—the painting, the pottery. But she always said it was the origami Harriet loved the most. Even in her old age and with the arthritis, she was always fiddling with a piece of paper. I remember, as a kid, my fascination as she turned a colored piece of paper into any animal I requested. Elegant Butterfly was my favorite.
I remember the first, one night on a stay-over. I can’t recall what I did that was so special but as she tucked me in she said, “You did a good job Nicky. So tonight I’ll give you beautiful blue wings to match your eyes,” and in a minute there I was, a magnificent lepidopteran with brilliant azure wings ready to fly away with my dreams. There were others, many over the years—little rewards for my successes in life. The last, three months ago when I received the Pulitzer. Most of them lost over time but that one, the last one? I still have that little piece of folded paper.
Christ, she was a good lady. Hmmm … ahmm. Stop that. Got to maintain.
“Welcome. Thanks for coming, gentlemen.”
A couple of old Uncle Bob’s golfing buddies have stopped by.
“Plenty of cerveza in the cooler, guys.”
“Of course, Negra Modelo. Harriet made sure I’d remember ‘the boys favorite.’”
Harriet was a widow for the last few years of her life. Her husband, Bob, was out one Sunday, playing golf with these guys. Up on the fifth tee at Haven, the old boys say Bob hit the best five iron of his life. He plopped it on the green, six inches from the pin. He just looked up and keeled over with a smile on his face.
“Hello, I’m Nick … the nephew. Thanks for coming.”
Ladies from the Women’s Club. Another white cap. What did I tell you?
“Yes. It is always too soon, isn’t it?”
“Well I’m not sure about all that but if she’s up there watching then I know she appreciates your attendance at this celebration of her life.”
“Yes, the food is through the doors, to your right.”
This whole life-after-death-heaven thing has always had me guessing. Not Aunt Harriet, though. “Trying to understand it all only makes life harder than it already is, Nicky. Besides, any bit of knowledge we gain just deepens the mystery,” she would say. I realized that faith made things simpler, but in Harriet’s mind she had proof.
She claimed old Bob visited her every night for the next two weeks after he died. Then one evening he said he had to go somewhere. When she asked where, he said “Just goin’ on up.” And that was the last she saw of him. About six months later, Harriet moved into Sonoran Manors. I’ve come down from Scottsdale more often since then, checking up on the old girl.
“Thanks for coming. Right, we’ve met before, over at Harriet’s house for dinner.”
“Yes, she was a good cook.”
“I agree, no one could make Tilapia taste like real fish better than Harriet.”
“Of course, beer is in the cooler. Champagne is in the ice bucket. Enjoy.”
Neighbors. Nice folks, though I guess they didn’t get along that well with Bob when he was alive. Nevertheless, Harriet was insistent that the Shermans get a special invitation. She may have lost a little in her last months, but the organizer in her never waned. She planned this memorial celebration down to the last cup and saucer. She put me in charge. Maybe because I’m the youngest. I don’t know. “Do it right, Nicky. It’s important to me,” she had said. “I’ll be watching,” and then there was that smile. The Aunt Harriet smile.
* * *
I’m having a glass of champagne now. The celebration is over. Darn good crowd and I’ve been counting. Thirteen white caps all total, including the one over in the chair by the pool.
It was a nice little venue—the room just spacious enough for a crowd this size. The covered ramada provided extra outside seating with a view of the pool deck. Besides our guests, probably fifteen to twenty people moved in and about the pool area during the afternoon. It was a beautiful sunny day.
The caterer is cleaning up now. I’ve moved out by the pool, getting a breath of fresh air. Everybody’s gone, even the people at the pool.
I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“I think this belongs to you folks.”
It’s the caterer. I look down, and in her hands sits Elegant Butterfly, blue wings and all. “Where did you get this?” my voice breaks a bit.
“Over there.” She points to the table by the pool … where the white cap was sitting. “The lady just left as I got there. She must have picked it up at the display table. Probably wanted to hold something of your aunt’s, one last time. They were good friends—yes?”
I’m having trouble speaking. “I have no idea,” I manage. “Never met the lady.” My eyes are glued to Elegant Butterfly.
Then I hear the words. “You did a good job, Nicky.”
“What?” my voice cracks, again. “What did you say?”
I look up. It’s Jean.
“Here, let me take that—put it back up on the display table,” and my cousin’s hand reaches out to me.
“It’s not from the display table, Jean,” I force my self to breathe.
“What?” She cocks her head.
“We only brought two pieces of Harriet’s origami: the big renditions of Magnificent Crane and Graceful Dragonfly.” I look into Jean’s eyes. “The only example of Harriet’s Elegant Butterfly I know of is still sitting on my mantel piece up in Scottsdale.”
There is a rustling sound as branches of the surrounding mesquites sway in the wind. Elegant Butterfly slips from my hand, and floats effortlessly away on the late afternoon breeze. Just goin’ on up, I realize.